[EDITOR’S NOTE: I was Tris McCall’s editor when he was the pop-rock critic for The Star-Ledger from 2010 to 2014, so I know he’s a huge Jefferson Airplane fan. It’s no surprise that I found one of the best appreciations of the late Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner, who died on Jan. 28, on his web site, trismccall.net. It’s part of his 26th annual Critics Poll, in which 71 area music fanatics offer their thoughts on the past year, and vote for their favorite albums and singles (Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Drake’s “Hotline Bling” were the top vote-getters, respectively, by the way). You can read the entire 20,000-word Critics Poll report here, but Tris has given me permission to repost the part about Kantner, below. – Jay Lustig]
There was a social history course offered to sophomores in my high school. It was spring 1987; I didn’t take it. I had no interest whatsoever in the 1960s — I’d never heard of Haight-Ashbury or the Monterey Pop Festival, or the Summer of Love. I didn’t watch the news, I watched MTV, and MTV meant Debbie Gibson and Glass Tiger and “Livin’ on a Prayer.” If I was very lucky, I might catch a Suzanne Vega video. Randee of the Redwoods was my idea of what a hippie was like. Woodstock was something for grownups to reminisce about, only none of the grownups in the staid automobile suburb where I lived would have ever admitted to attending.
Then somebody sent a copy of Jefferson Airplane’s 2400 Fulton Street collection to the shopping mall record store where I worked. And I did something that I never did before or after, and, to this day, I still don’t know where I got the nerve: I stuck the two cassettes in my bookbag and dashed out.
Would Grace Slick have approved of my petty theft? Probably not. By then, she was trying to hammer out a living on mainstream radio, singing with Starship in a connection I wouldn’t make until months after my initial introduction to the Airplane. The entertainment industry runs on property rights; nobody gets any money without them. But 2400 Fulton Street told me that all my private property was target for my enemies. It seemed a reasonable outlook. It still does.
I could trace the beginning of my musical education to the moment I pressed play on my cassette player in ’87 and heard the Airplane for the first time. That would be accurate, but I’m afraid that it would shortchange the band’s power. Midway through my first listen to that collection, the walls of the high school and the shopping mall and my suburban bedroom started shaking. All my life I’d been taught that black was black, white was white, sky was blue, and that was that. Paul Kantner suggested that if I was a cloud, my sky would be green. I got the point.
Remember that I knew nothing of the Airplane’s history: the first tentative flights through the San Francisco underground, the unlikely chart successes in 1966, the controversies, the collaborations, the counterculture reputation, the riots, the exhaustion, the psychedelics. The only drug I was doing at the time was Cap’n Crunch. With no context whatsoever, Jefferson Airplane spoke directly to me, trapped in the 1980s, just as they once spoke to thousands liberated in the ’60s and the ’70s. Open your mind, they said, use your imagination, do things that don’t have a name yet. The proper response to abusive authority is laughter, because that’s the one thing they can’t take, or take away from you. And if all of that makes you an outlaw in the eyes of America, well, there’s plenty of harmony on the other side of that line.
They became my favorite band. Though I considered myself surrounded by people whose ideas and values opposed mine, the Airplane was my proof that there once existed people who felt the way I did — and my promise that it could happen again. When Kantner and his bandmates raised their voices together, it sounded to me like an entire nation was singing. That nation certainly wasn’t the one I was living in. But it didn’t sound undiscoverable, either. It sounded like it was right there beyond a thin barrier; a wild world, a playful world, a world where people of all kinds could be together without losing their individual personalities. Paul Kantner’s music was, essentially, an entreaty to go out and find it — and if you couldn’t find it, go ahead and make it. Because he was generous, he even gave us a cryptic recipe, right there on his best-ever song, an anarchist’s pamphlet set to glorious music. “We must begin here and now,” he sings with his mates, “a new continent of earth and fire.” No matter what’s happened since 1967, I still believe it’s possible.